The slewing unit carries three parts: first the long horizantal jib, the portion of the crane that carries the load.
Waking next morning I can hardly believe any of it. Surely they can’t have left me in the dark all these years? Then I remember Stuart’s hesitations. Maybe there is something I haven’t been told -but who can I ask about it? I can’t bring myself to ask my mother. Usually I go to Granny, but this does not seem something I can ask Granny about. If such a secret has been kept from me, it’s her I’m most angry with. She of all people should have told me. When I take Border back from her walk, I don’t stay to talk.
I try and talk to Rahilah a little. But she doesn’t seem to want to discuss the subject of twins any more. I daresay it hurts her. I look up twin websites on the internet, after school, even though I should have been doing my homework. I can always pretend to myself – or to my mother if she comes into the room- I do once - that I’m still pursuing the subject of genetics. As I am, in a way. But not for homework.
I learn a lot, little of it helpful. I learn that there are huge organisations of twins – mostly identical - who have posted up pictures of themselves wearing the same clothes and looking just the same; copies of each other. A bit creepy I think. Not to say freaky. I’m not sure I’d want to have been a twin if it meant not being a single person at all just a copy of someone else.
Would Ella be a copy of me? Would we really be one and the same if she was alive now? I find the website of a restaurant in New York called ‘Twins’ where all the staff, from the owners to the waiters and waitresses, to the barmen and girls, to the people who take your coats, are look-alike twins, where most of the people who come to eat are twins too, so that everywhere you see double. Surely twins aren’t just twins, I think. Surely they’re separate people too, and different in some ways?
I don’t find anywhere I can just ask questions. I do discover an English organisation called The Lone Twin Network for people whose twins have died. But they don’t have a website, only an address to write to. I don’t know for sure that I am a lone twin. So how can I write to them?
I also come across a scientific site. Many more people in the world than used to be thought, it says, started off as twins in the womb; but the other twin disappears soon after conception; within two or three or four months anyway. How do they know this? Because sometimes two babies come up on the first scan and only one on the second. What happens to the second twin? The first twin kind of ‘swallows it up’, they suggest. Does that mean that the one does get born is made up two people, I wonder? Gross. Creepy. Weird. But the idea’s in my head now. I can’t do anything about it.
Did I swallow up Ella? I ask myself. Is that why I have an imaginary or not imaginary, more likely dead friend? But if I did, surely Ella would seem more like me than she does? I don’t have any idea what Ella would look like. And now I think about she has always seemed like someone older than me, like a big sister, rather than a twin. Why? Nothing is sure about any of this, which is disturbing; I wish I could go back to seeing Ella as I used to. As my imaginary friend, no more, no less.
I don’t tell any of my friends, Jay, Rashid, Rahilah, Trace, what I’m thinking. I don’t tell Jay or Rashid about Stuart either, any more than I tell Rahilah. Like I said, I don’t know what Muslims think about gays. Jay I suspect would just make a joke of it anyway, as he does of most things. I don’t want anyone making a joke of my big brother. Trace, though, is a different matter; I do tell her. With difficulty. I’m not used to talking about my brother to anyone, not because I’m embarrassed that he’s gay, but because people in my family rarely talk about each other, even between themselves. (The way Stuart and I discuss granny and mum is a relief, though it feels odd.)
Trace thinks it’s Stuart’s being gay makes me slow to get the words out. ‘Big deal,’ she says when I make it at last. ‘Big deal. You’re brother’s gay – is that all? Cool.’ Sounding at the same time both interested and bored. ‘Would you like to meet him?’ I ask. ‘Why?’ she sounds more bored than ever. ‘I think you’d like him’ I say. ‘I’m meeting him later as a matter of fact. Do you want to come?’ Trace just shrugs. But after school she heads for the bus stop on my side of the road as if there’s never been any question.
Stuart has suggested meeting up at the same Mailbox café where he and I went before. This time we stay there quite a long time. Skinny Trace eats the way she did at our flat: lots that is. She has two slices of cheesecake and three cappuccinos, but doesn’t look as if she notices because she’s so taken up with Stuart and he with her. I can’t get a word in edgeways. Though on the one hand, I’m glad to see my friend and my darling brother getting on so well, on the other I’m quite jealous. I don’t know a lot of the music they’re talking about, let alone the films. Trace is only two months older than me, so how did she get to see and hear all these things? Through her mum, I suppose. I’d always suspected her mum wasn’t a bit like mine. Now I know for sure.
It’s not just what they talk about; it’s how they talk about it; camping it up, making jokes. I can’t do that. I can talk about things seriously, or not at all. Stuart is quite happy to talk my way with me, but alongside Trace he turns into someone quite different. ‘Darling’, he says, ‘DARLING - in ways which are both like and not like him. As if bouncing off her turns him into someone else.
Trace even says ‘DARLING’ back: but only once. She raises an eyebrow from time to time – she’s had a stud put in the right hand one lately, it looks fantastic - and laughs or says something funny, at least it sounds very funny at the time. But I can’t remember a word of it afterwards – or of what Stuart says. It’s as if they are bouncing words between them. ‘Witty repartee’ I suppose you’d call it. Witty I’m not. All this makes me feel even less so. Stuart smiles at me affectionately sometimes, but it looks like Trace has forgotten I’m there. Nibbling at my cheesecake to make it last, I watch the remaining bubbles in my coffee cup burst one by one and feel gloomier by the minute.
How would Ella do, I wonder? If I’m not witty I’m sure she must be. And then I think: that’s odd, I haven’t heard a word from Ella lately. Not since I heard her voice – if it was her voice – in the lift. Two days ago I even emailed her –but I haven’t had a reply yet. Maybe they’ll be one waiting when I get home. All at once I want, desperately, to be at home, in my room, by myself. But I just keep on sitting in the café. ‘More coffee?’ Stuart asks. I shake my head.
We leave the café at last. It’s a wild night out there, grown wilder still since we went inside. The sign on the nearest crane is swinging madly, reflected as madly in the canal itself. Catspaws of wind are running up and down, on top of water racing along so wildly it looks like a living river, not like a man-made waterway. Up in the sky the wind keeps tearing the cloud apart– I see the whole of Orion the hunter once, my favourite constellation. But he doesn’t comfort me tonight.
Trace and Stuart seem even more excited by the wildness of the wind. ‘Let’s walk along the canal,’ they say. We cross the new bridge –as usual I look up at flats to see if the writer is at her window; but though the light is on, her curtains are drawn – no comfort for me there, either.
‘I’m not coming,’ I say. ‘I’m going home.’ I start running back over the bridge fighting the wind, the bridge thumping under me, my backpack thumping against my shoulders. I don’t look back to see where Trace and Stuart are. I don’t care what they are doing. I arrive, panting, in the hall of the mailbox feeling like the whole world is against me.
‘This is the fifth floor,’ says the lift in its normal voice, reminding me that I’d meant to go and give Border a quick run. Too late now, I think, heading for our front door: not to say too bad. I’d taken her out before school. Granny would have to take her out this evening.
Back in my room I sit straight down at my computer, go online. No email from Ella, not even one from Rashid, which is unusual – most nights we go back and forth two or three times. On the other hand it’s Friday: I know that Friday is like Sunday for Muslims, maybe he’s had to go with his father to the mosque.
I send an email myself: Ella, again.
‘Are you my dead twin?’ I ask. ‘Are you my dead twin? ARE YOU?’
Again I get no reply.
Nearer and nearer Christmas: baby Jesus and all that stuff. Our school is not putting on a Nativity play, of course, that’s for little kids in the Juniors and Infants. We’re doing Joseph and his Amazing Technicoloured Dreamcoat. Some of the kids in my class auditioned for it: four are in the chorus and Trace is playing Potiphar’s wife. As the time for the two performances gets nearer she’s off at rehearsals more and more, I hardly have a chance to talk to her. I’m still cross with her after the evening with Stuart, so I don’t mind. ‘Why didn’t you audition too?’ she asks. ‘I can’t sing for one,’ I say shortly. ‘I can’t act for two. That’s why.’
The tops of the cranes have sprouted strings of lights and Christmas trees. There’s a competition for the best decorated crane in Birmingham. I don’t know how they’ll choose it. They all look pretty much the same to me. But I do like the lofty little trees scattered with gaudy light. There are coloured bulbs strung over some of the narrow boats in the Gas Street Basin too, along with branches of fir and holly. Mnemonsyne is not decorated; granny says she might put up some lights in due course; but she doesn’t like Christmas to start until the proper time. In her childhood, she says, the proper time was Christmas Eve. But she might do it sooner than that.
She’s not the only one still lacking in Christmas spirit. Some of the kids in our school have so very little that they’ve taken to waylaying me in the playgound at breaktime and after school and they aren’t bringing messages of love and peace, let alone goodwill to all men. Far from it.
I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t told you about the builder yet. Not that I know he is a builder when I meet him coming off Granny’s boat one weekend. At first I even wonder if he’s her boyfriend, until I realise she’s not the least worried about my running into him the way she might be if he was. Nor can I imagine her having a boyfriend quite like him. He doesn’t speak much except in smiles and grunts. Any boyfriend of granny’s would have to be VERY gabby.
He seems a bit familiar, too, I don’t know why. He doesn’t look easy to forget. With his big belly, his short, stocky legs and his bushy red beard, he’s a more or less full-sized version of one of Snow White’s dwarfs. A matching bushy ponytail sticks out from under a red and black striped woollen hat with a pom-pom on top.
It’s the beard I’m sure I’ve seen before. It reminds me of a rhyme Granny used to recite, and which she recites again, obligingly, when I ask her. ‘There was an old man with a beard, who said it is just as I feared, an owl and a hen, two larks and a wren, have all made their nests in my beard.’
‘I don’t think old red-beard could manage the hen,’ I say thoughtfully. ‘Or even the owl. But the larks and the wren could have made it for sure.’ We both crease ourselves up laughing, till Granny stops and says warningly, ‘We shouldn’t laugh, really. He only brought his boat here last week. He started helping me out straight off.’
Turns out he’s been lugging her Elsan about for her and bringing in coal, even lighting her stove sometimes when it’s playing up. His narrow boat is moored at the pontoon on the other side of the walkway. ‘He’s works on a building site,’ granny says. Immediately my mind replaces the striped hat with a plastic helmet. I remember the bearded man coming out of what I think of as my site.
Next time I run into him near his boat – it’s called Poseidon - he’s carrying a coil of rope over one shoulder and a bucket laden with coal in the other hand. ‘Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work I go,’ I hum to myself. Is he Bashful? Or Grumpy? I wonder. He smiles at me but clearly doesn’t want to stop.
Never mind that. ‘I saw you at the building-site once,’ I say. He nods, passing the coal bucket from hand to hand as if it’s filled with something light as paper.
‘I live in the flats’ - I eye him closely.‘I’m always watching the building. I like the cranes.’
‘It’s flats we’re building,’ His jeans look like they could do with a wash; so does his beard. I can smell the beard. I imagine I do. Maybe it’s the birds inside. It is quite big and bushy enough to hide a bird - or three.
‘Are you a crane driver?’ I ask. He looks startled, shakes his head. Puts the bucket down now, shifts the rope to the other shoulder, picks the bucket up again and moves one foot forward.
I block his way still. He can’t get round me.
‘I’d like to climb one of those cranes,’ I say. ‘I’d really like to climb one.’
‘More than I would, man,’ he says.
‘If I went and asked would they let me?’ I enquire out loud.
‘Likely not, man’ he says.
‘Who would I ask?’ I persist.
‘Foreman. Site Manager, to you. Don’t waste breath.’
You don’t waste yours, I’m thinking. But he does not look hostile, he’s smiling awkwardly, shifting his bucket between coal-grimed hands and at last I take pity on him and stand aside to let him pass. He grunts a goodbye. Looking back over his shoulder, he jerks his head at Mnemosyne and says, ‘Tell her in there I got her more coal up.’
‘Alright,’ I say, wondering why Granny’s boyfriend doesn’t do these things for her. Maybe he’s too posh. Lifting my left leg over the chain, I hop onto Granny’s section of the pontoon, then step up onto the boat. There’s a jar of mixed holly and fir standing on top of the cabin now, but still no sign of Christmas lights. I can hear Border yipping on the other side of the closed door, which means she’s heard me coming. She doesn’t make that yipping noise for anyone else.
Meeting the builder is alright. What isn’t alright is my other meetings these days, in the playground, or just outside the school gate.
It’s boys mostly. Big year eleven boys. Plus some girl hangers-on, year tens mostly like me. They don’t say much just giggle obediently. I know the boys’ leader; everybody in the school knows him: he’s very tall, and part black, though I don’t know whether it’s his dad is black or his mum. It doesn’t matter. His name is Franklin – after Frank Bruno, everyone says – the boxer. You have to be aggressive to be a boxer and this Franklin – Frankie they all call him – is all of that. ‘Our Frankie’s got form,’ they say in between pride and terror. He’s got a flat-top, and one gold earring. Despite his colour – or part colour – his skin is not that much darker than theirs - the gang he hangs around with is all white, bar one boy, a really dim Jamaican who’s a cousin of his. Some of the white boys have flat-tops too which look pretty weird on them.
Seeing that lot hanging around together, some stupid teachers see it as good racial integration in our school. Ha bloody ha. Black boys and white ones may get on but both kinds have it in for the Asians. This is why they are getting at me. ‘Paki-lover,’ they chant, ‘Hanging round with Paki girls. and boys. Terrorists. Got the hots for Paki terrorists have you?’
‘Maybe she’s a lezzie,’ one of the girls chips in. ‘Maybe it’s the girls she fancies. Maybe she wants to know what’s under all those clothes. A pervert.’
I think they can see into my head. I think they see how I fancy Rashid. I’m terrified. I’m also angry.
‘So,’ I say. ‘SO?’ The threatening way they crowd round me then, hiding me from the safer people who might come to my rescue, I wish I hadn’t. Someone – a boy I think – leans over and pulls at my backpack. Immediately I pull it round and hold to me closely.
‘Got love letters in there, have you?’ a voice behind me says. I can’t see whose voice it is. Another adds. ‘Does she know what happens to paki lovers? Does she know?’
‘We could tell her,’ says someone else. It’s all the worse for being someone I can’t see. ‘Leave my bag alone,’ I say.
‘And just listen to her fancy accent,’ yet another voice chips in; one of the girls this time. Esther bloody Rantzen are we?’ I almost laugh at this; wondering what my ma would say. She’s always complaining that I sound like a Brummie these days. Someone tweaks my hair. Someone else puts a small punch on my back. A little kick meets my shin. I stop laughing straightaway.
‘Watch it, paki lover, just watch it. Keep away from terrorists or else.’ This time I can see who’s speaking: Frankie himself. He bends his head towards me, good as rams his greasy flat top into my face, his little gold earring bobbing. Then he stands back, pulls his hood over his head, jerks his hand, and suddenly the group parts, lets me out into the normal world. Still noone else dares come too near. People skirt round me, looking the other way. I stand by myself, in the middle of the playground, shaking.
‘They’re bullies,’ Trace says when I tell her later. ‘Take no notice. The more you do the more they’ll go for you.’
‘They might go for Rahilah,’ I said. ‘Or Rashid.’ I am terrified for Rashid, suddenly, and for Jay too, still more terrified than for myself. Sometimes aggro like this ends in knives. Oh yes I’ve heard it. But how could they know about Rashid? We never speak to each other except in class, when we have to, during some lesson.
‘Don’t give them an inch,’ Tracy adds. If I can stick around with you, Tracy, they wouldn’t, I think. But Tracy is never in the playground these days, never comes out if school with me at the end of the day; she’s always rehearsing. She does suggest, though, I help with the props and costumes for the play. This means my working in the artroom at breaktime instead of spending it in the playground, means I can stay on after school until everyone else has gone home.
But still, sometimes, they get me. I feel a punch at my back, coming from nowhere, I hear hisses from people I can’t see: ‘Paki-lover’. Once I find a nasty little note topped by a skull and crossbones stuck onto my bag. ‘Keep away from TERRORISTS’ it says.
I stop hanging out with Rahilah. I see her only in the classroom, or outside school where it’s not so obvious. Rahilah hasn’t got a pc so I can’t warn her by email. But to both the boys I write ‘I’m getting a bit of aggro – if I seem a bit stand-offish, don’t worry. I just don’t want you getting aggro too.’ I guess they know what I’m talking about. Once Jay finds me by myself in the art room sewing sequins on Trace’s mother’s gold pyjamas from M and S that she’s going to wear as Potiphar’s wife. He gives me half of an awkward hug, surprising himself as much as me from the look on his face. He’s gone at once and I wonder vaguely why he’d come there. He’s not working on the play, he had no real reason. But I’m glad he did.
Nothing actually happens. Nothing. No word comes from Ella either. ‘Are you my twin?’ I ask again. Nothing.
‘You look peaky, Esther,’ Granny says next time I deliver Border. ‘I’m fine,’ I say. Wanting and not wanting to tell Granny what’s happening. I’m afraid that for once she might tell my mother who would see it as one more reason I shouldn’t have gone to Anthony Morris. ‘I’m fine,’ I say. ‘Just fine.’ I tell her about Joseph just to change the subject. ‘Would you like me to come?’ she asks.
‘Please,’ I say.
‘’Right,’ she says, ‘Tell me the day and then get me a ticket.’
‘Do you want to come with mum?’ I ask.
‘Only if you want me to.’
‘Of course I do’ I say. All the same I’m hoping that granny won’t put on one of her more outlandish get-ups.
Granny as usual knows exactly what I am thinking. ‘Don’t worry, darling,’ she says ‘I’ll wear my ordinary old lady look. If Stuart’s around why don’t I bring him too?
‘Only if you get him to wear his ordinary old lady look,’ I say. Though it’s not such a good joke really, we both burst out laughing. And suddenly I feel much better, better than I have for days.
‘There,’ Granny says, ‘You’ve stopped looking like you’ve seen a ghost. Good.’
The word ghost sends my eyes to the shelf to see if the urn full of ashes is still standing there next to the Hopi Indian pot. It isn’t. Granny sees where my eyes are going, shakes her head, but says nothing. I’ve been too angry with her recently to visit much. But I realise now that I need her more than ever. I need to ask her about Ella more than ever. But I can’t. It’s as if she won’t let me somehow – and at that thought, for a moment, I’m angry with her again.